These are the chronicles of Thanda maria, my beloved village.
I was brought up in our little dusty corner of this rock by my grandmother, Nyina wa Makarí, a no nonsense, tough as nails Gíkùyù woman and a catholic registration No.A (1)(i).
As a young, dirt poor villager whose Cùcú, God bless her soul, was fond of serving three square meals of Gítheri a day for two weeks straight, I developed very strong feelings against Gítheri quite early in life. Every time you came home from school and saw that huge pot on top of those three stones, you knew you were in for a long stretch of capscules in all it’s different variations and permutations. The variations of how a plate of githeri could ruin your appetite were infinite.
A standard pot of gítheri required hours of fiery flames to soften the mineral hard maize to barely palatable standards and those flames needed to be fed fervently and constantly while battling chocking smoke. Any one who has ever fed this particular kind of inferno would be a natural at arson if it was a competitive sport.
There was a life hack around this public health menace though and it involved the adding of baking soda, better known as igata, to the gítheri. This was done to hasten the process of softening the granite chips masquerading as maize and would reduce the amount of fire required to cook the Structural concrete that was passed as food. Trust me, I would know, I am a structural engineer by trade and I have tested consistencies of concrete mixes in a materials testing laboratory.
My Cúcú, naturally, would have none of that igata nonsense. She considered herself, by her own assessment, a purist that held herself and those under her dominion to lofty standards and claimed to never cut corners with excellence. Incidentally, at 82, I have had her claim severally that she still does. If that pot required a six-hour inferno; then a six inferno it would get, period. Your pulmonary well being and objections on the matter notwithstanding.
This meant that if you were unlucky enough to find yourself out of school during this most unfortunate exercise, you would be required to see to it that that fire razed. As if being subjected to 2 weeks of culinary hell was insufficient, you would be required to play a very central role in the engineering of your own future misery.
If the call of your boyhood adventures had you feeling gallant enough to abscond this task, and you instead chose to spend your day pursuing more pleasurable endeavors without seeking all the attendant permissions to do so from her office, you would attract one of her signature beatings.
Seeking said permissions was a pretty redundant exercise since she believed that the life purpose of a child was to work, not to play, and as such I never bothered seeking it. You see, if she saw you appear to be enjoying yourself , you risked attracting a beating just to revert you to the default setting of fear and anxiety.
Sometimes I simply sneaked away, played to my heart’s content, and dealt with the consequences as , and when, the consequences arose. Being absent from that exercise without leave, usually attracted her patented ‘Haro ya gìkombe’ or championship class beating or the option of going to bed hungry or both.
Since Cùcù was, and still is, a proper autocrat that did not tolerate democracy in her household, so you were not accorded the luxury of options. This was a luxury and she didn’t like luxury, she loved hardship. Whenever very, very rarely a choice between said high calibre, close quarter beating and going to bed hungry arose, I usually picked the beating, naturally. Anyone who has ever been village level hungry then had to go to bed hungry needs no explanation.
The memory of the alternating chills, fever and night sweats is strong with them.
Once the githeri was ready, half of it would be mashed into mukimo and the rest would be left in capsules form. The mukimo would be scooped with a kíihúri and placed in equal portions on a Gítarùrù and covered with fresh banana leaves. I could translate but there are no inglis equivalents.
Please don’t let your imagination run away with you, by mukimo, I don’t mean that elitist stuff you eat with nyama choma at those Eastern by pass joints. I mean a just barely palatable mix that tasted like the class 20/20 concrete mix they use for high rise buildings. Again, I would know, I am a structural engineer and I know structural concrete the way a surgeon knows his scalpel.
The primary purpose of this mùkimo, was to maintain one’s basal metabolic rate and sustain basic life processes like breathing so that you don’t catch a case of death . And it tasted exactly like that. Taste was nowhere near a core requirement and no one pretended that it was.
The capscules form would be left in the pot and covered.
I feel obliged to mention that Cúcù doesn’t play and her idea of dietary variety didn’t either.
For breakfast, you would either have the mukimo, or the basic ‘123’ salted format and tea. The ‘123’ just meant that you took the boiled githeri from the pot straight to your plate and after adding salt, you would shake the plate vigorously to the count of three to evenly distribute the salt. Lunch would either be the mukìmo, the 123 format or a stewed version depending on her mood. Supper would either be mùkimo with a stew or stewed gítheri.
And Please, do not be fooled by my liberal use of the word ‘stew’. I am playing fast and loose with that word. I have seen horrors and culinary travesties of the gravest degree in the name of stewed githeri.
I have seen the githeri mixed with potatos, cabbage, thoroko, managu, sukuma, spinach, arrow roots, arrow root leaves, yams, pumpkins, and very, very rarely meat. She would mix them in many different combinations and add copius amounts of soup like any self respecting kikuyu.
I held, and still do, a particular disdain for the pumpkin version. It still keeps me up at night. It tasted like rainy Monday mornings laced with radioactive waste.
Cùcù has never too been shy to blow her own horn. She regularly announces to anyone that would care to listen that she cannot count on one hand persons that can cook as well as her. To say that she was anywhere near even remotely being a good cook would be a gross misrepresentation of facts. Needless to say, her lack of culinary prowess aggravated and already grave situation.
She enforced a very strict, eat it or leave it, policy in her kitchen affairs. Since she also had a flair for the dramatic, if you felt that a particular meal wasn’t upto the high standards of your delicate palate and you chose to abstain from said meal, you incurred an automatic, forced forfeiture of your right to partake the next meal. And if she was feeling a little extra, the next one after that. So, basically, whatever was served, you cleared that plate and kept your opinions and critique to yourself.
She wasn’t running a French restaurant. If you offered critique you risked getting a concussion, so you abstained.
After I cleared primary school, I found myself in the storied hallways of Nairobi school, where rich kids roamed freely. It was a jungle out there. Githeri, or murram as it was known, was a three meal a week affair that was generally very frowned upon.
It tasted like the plague and it was avoided like the plague by the many with the financial means to procure an alternative meal at the tuck shop.
Because I came from a place where people were afflicted by a severe form of perpetual brokeness, my financial means were like Anti-counterfeit laws in China. Pretty much non-existent. So regular lunches at the ‘tuckie’ were out of a Ninja’s league.
Githeri lunches in Patch was one of the easier ways of telling apart the peasants from the plutocrat fat cats . Eating it was always a last resort. You could see the bourgeoise and the nouveau riche at the tuck shop washing down a succulent and prohibitively expensive serving of ‘mandazi mbili sausage’ with a cold packet of Brookside’s finest in dairy offerings. The the lactose intolerant ones’ amongst them could be seen having a coke ‘Madiaba’ to cleanse their delicate palates with.
50 meters across from the tuck shop was the senior dining hall where you could find the peasants putting their Gnashers to good use. They could be seen grinding granite hard murram while staring covetously out of the huge colonial style windows at the show of opulence and the capitalism tutorial on display at the tuck shop.
I don’t know why this is relevant, but the richest teacher in school by general consensus loved it. She was Mrs. Okemwa and she must have been married to a pretty well funded Ninja. She sometimes drove a different top of the range car to school each day of the week and had a known proclivity for donning imported, designer skirt suits that looked expensive enough to fund a manned trip to Mars. She never, ever came to DH for any other meal, but she dutifully cane each Tuesday and Friday lunch specifically for unpalatable murram. It always seemed like a bad joke to my impoverished self.
Since was a cunning little Ninja, I found and exploited a certain life hack and almost always never resorted to capsules.
You see, very many students would buy half a loaf of bread priced at 12 bob at the tuck shop on githeri lunch days at the same time and change was an issue. So the sellers always required you to have exactly 12 bob to buy for ease of transaction because the joint was always packed. It was a hard house rule. Everyone knew that 1 bob coins were an issue so you would find well funded Ninjas soliciting for shillings outside the tuck shop to fufill the house rules. Everyone always assumed that you had actual money and you simply needed two, 1 bob coins. In this little inconvenience, I found and exploited my niche.
So I would solicit the coins from scratch until I had 12 of them and bought loaf.
I held such strong feelings against githeri that my cousin Macharia and I, then in second form and aged just under 15 years, donated blood at the school hospital during a blood donation exercise. We did not do this out of charity or principle. We did it in exchange for half a loaf of bread and a madiaba soda that were on offer after the donation exercise
There wear clear instructions from the organizers that a donor had to be above 16 years, above a certain weight and free from stomach ulcers. I was 15, underweight, had a bad case of ulcers and I didn’t care. And I also had, and still have, a serious phobia for needles. I was willing to risk death to avoid murram. If I died, I died. I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, Stoney madiaba and loaf in hand.
I donated blood I probably couldn’t afford to be without and ate my loaf and Stoney madiaba heartily afterwards. After I was full, my senses came back and I started to think that it probably wasn’t a good idea. This was quickly followed by major dizziness and I had difficulty walking from the sanatorium to my house, Tana house. Since I am a chronic hypochondriac, I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed wrapped in paralyzing fear waiting to catch a case of death.
Then life happened and a villager got a little bit of money, cleaned up well and started speaking fancy English. Out of thin air, I became elitist and suddenly developed a very delicate palate that was well outside of my financial means and a proclivity for eating in fancy places. At that point I made a sweeping declaration that for so long as I could afford to eat what I wanted to, I would not live long enough to even stare in the general direction of a plate of githeri.
It looked like a pile of enriched uranium and tasted like strong poverty, with a subtle hint of jiggers, a distant whiff of beatings and reminded me of punishments in Patch and concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
And so I went for many years without touching a plate of capsules. Then something uncharacteristically out of turn happened the last few months; I started craving Githeri. Whenever I found myself in the village, I began buying it by the roadside and frying it in my now very prosperous Cùcù’s modern kitchen. Talk of poetic justice for all the times I gave my Cúcù hell, despite her very selfless gesture of almost singlehandedly bringing me up. And I crave and enjoy it waaay too much that I am beginning to suspect that something is wrong me.
In fact, I had to Google just to be dead certain that it is biologically impossible for men to catch pregnancy and it’s attendant cravings.
Now I eat three square meals of plain, boiled githeri everyday with very little variation.
I am convinced that I died at some point and got reincarnated in some ironic Hindi film as a githeri lover for my transgressions in my previous life.
Welcome to the circus that is my life.